6:13-17 “Therefore put on the full armour of the Mall, so that when the popular kids come, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to be cool. Stand tall then, with the belt of Armani buckled round your waist, with the breastplate of Lagerfeld in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the house of Prada. In addition to all this, take up the shield of Calvin Klein, with which you can extinguish all the bad odours from the evil one. Take the hat of Gaultier and the handbag of Vuitton, which is the word on the street.”
Advertising is a strange phenomenon. Between the stuff that we voluntarily watch, there are short films about how dissatisfied you ought to be with yourself.
Here in South Africa, there’s an ad running in which an attractive young woman passes a male social equivalent on the escalator, and he makes a fool of himself chasing after her. Catching up with her in a revolving door, she does what all people do under those circumstances: she exposes her armpit to him. The little animated trashcan up there and the immediate revulsion of her suitor tell us that her seemingly successful existence is being hampered by body odour. Naturally, the young man rejects her.
Ads do that all the time. You’re too fat. Your skin is bad. Your cellphone ought to be attracting gorgeous women to you but isn’t. Your car is boring, which reveals that you are boring (but we can change that). So it goes on. The purpose in all this is not merely to insult us (in fact, most often we seem not to hear the insult, because it comes in such a shiny package). Rather, companies attempt to make us brand conscious: they attempt to make us aware that we have a public brand, and by grafting their brand into ours, they can make us better.
The question is, for what reason do we want to be better? The answer that occurs to me is that we seem to think that a better personal brand will lead to increased popularity, which will in turn lead to greater love and acceptance and happiness. As the Counting Crows song incorrectly mopes: “When everybody loves you, you can never be lonely”.
Ironically, the opposite is as likely to be true. The trouble with personal brand-managing is that it forces us to calculate a series of complicated social equations that all aim at establishing the net gain to your brand, but which are destructive of relationships.
The tobacco industry continues to exist in spite of smoking being a smelly, expensive and deadly habit, because it provides instant ‘brand positioning’ for the user. Perhaps even more so because it’s life threatening, it continues to define the smoker as anti-establishment, as slightly rebellious and miserable, all of which is society gold when you’re eighteen.
When we’re slightly older, our vehicles often become our primary means of branding. I drive a rusting VW Fox, which puts me relatively low on the pecking order. Thus, the sickliest, feeblest individual in a hulking SUV becomes ‘dominant male’ on the roads, which would naturally not be the case were we to meet in person. But I also drive a 1000 cc BMW motorcycle, which enables me to feel better and more powerful than anyone on a 125 cc Chinese scooter.
These kinds of transactions are going on all the time, and never more so than when we buy into an advertising mentality about our personal brands. Inevitably, it means that we become ‘consumers’ of people – not physically, obviously – we become brand cannibals, perhaps. The people that I choose as friends will be regarded as my social equals, and this will cause others to form opinions about me on account of them.
What will it do for my brand if I am seen with people who can only afford those clothes?
If I’m in middle management, I can’t be friends with the postman, because I need to get in with the company directors, regardless of how much I get on with the postman and hate my boss.
If only I could be friends with a bona fide celebrity!
Consequently, concern with public image and popularity leads to rejection of people who are deemed unsuitable, and it leads to impenetrable social cliques that are organised for personal gain and not relational depth. The goal of cultivating popularity in order to find love, acceptance and happiness gives way to commodified relationships that have more to do with rejection, superficiality and alienation.
Wisdom in the Paradox
Philippians 2:1-5 addresses a community full of veteran Roman soldiers, in which church members had clearly begun to squabble and become defensive about their own reputations. In response to this, Paul urges Christians to be so united that they can be described as having one mind, and as being ‘co-souled’. He adds:
‘Do nothing according to strife or conceit, but in humility esteem one another above yourselves, each one not considering his own things, but also the things of others. Let the same attitude be in you that is also in Christ Jesus.’
If I were to translate the message into the language I’ve been using so far, it is that our primary concern should be for the ‘brand’ of the community, and not of ourselves. If we labour to improve the standing of everyone else in the community, and if we direct our attentions towards the concerns of others, then unity is the result. If love and acceptance is our desire for ourselves, then becoming someone who is loving and accepting of others (regardless of what they can personally do for your brand popularity) is the means by which this is achieved.
In short, advertising sells us the lie. You can buy your way into higher society, but money can’t buy you love, as the mop-haired ones once crowed. Carefully constructing your own brand can purchase popularity, but not the deep relationships that we actually want.
Once again, the paradox: serving oneself ensures that one’s needs are never met, and dying to self is the path to true life.